Merchants of Mogadishu

In Water by Amani Omar

Mogadishu is the capital and most populous city of Somalia. The city has served as an important port connecting with traders and travellers all around the Indian Ocean for millennia. Through the middle ages, there had been many visitors that had come to visit and trade in Mogadishu. The city of Blinding beauty left impressions on tourists and traders alike.  

One theory says the city got its name from a derivative of Somali words “Muuq” and “Disho” which literally means “Sight Killer” or “Blinder” possibly referring to the city’s blinding beauty. The city would capture the imagination of travelers and traders and they would leave notes in the diaries. Here are some of the notes of international travelers who made stops in the beautiful medieval city of Mogadishu.


A translation of the passages in Mu’jam ul-Buldān given by Trimingham in 1964 vaguely describes the inhabitants of Mogadishu as Muslims from the nomadic Barbar who are not black in color. Yaqut explains the hierarchy in which they have no kings but each clan has a Sheikh and a council of elders who govern the towns. 

As a merchant, one must stay with one of the Sheikhs who will sponsor his dealings while in town. 


Dimashqi talks about the merchants and the people of Zanj, how Mogadishu was a land in which merchants of different regions would gather, therefore, from what we know of these accounts, the people of Mogadishu, and the people of Zanj had flourishing trade routes for example the route to Diba (Laccadive and Maldives islands), that were said to be “of Zanzibar” which could mean that the town was also occupied by Bantu people (Neville Chittick)

Ibn Battuta

Ibn Battuta, a well-known merchant who travelled through Africa spreading the religion of Islam, gives what is known to be the longest account of Mogadishu when he visited in 1331. He talks about the Sheikh named Abu Bakr, son of Sheikh Umar that ruled the town replacing the council of elders that once governed. The Sheikh spoke what he called “Maqdishi” which could be interpreted as Somali or a Bantu tongue as there were many cities with Bantu names for example Shingani. 

Just as Yaqut had also mentioned, the people who lived there were Muslims, and Ibn Battuta speaks of the Friday congregation at the chief mosque. The Sheikh prays in a separate room made just for the ruler called the maqsurah, after the Friday prayer is done, the Sheikh leaves from the masjid in procession to his residence, in which there is an officiate (qadi), amirs of the army (high ranking military officials), lawyers and the sharifs. The procession is accompanied by a band of instruments that are very much the sound of the Somali. Trumpets, drums and oboe like instruments parade a melody fit for a celebration. 

Battuta gives us a descriptive image of the residence of the Sheikh. “The Sheikh would walk beneath the silk canopy with golden birds atop the poles which supported it, and in the audience hall (which sounds to have been a more or less large chamber) he would sit on a carpet.” From the clothes he was wearing, to his residence, the Sheikh exuded an aura of wealth and luxury.

He talks then of the diet of the people, the presence of bananas, chickens, and watermelon being called attention to. Along with the fact that hundreds of camels were slaughtered every day. 

Ibn Battuta describes the merchants more than the actual town itself, merchants who travel to town are assigned agents who welcome them into their homes. He describes that trade was flourishing, for example, he singles out that woven fabrics are exported to Egypt and other places. 

Fei Hsin

Fei Hsin of the Ming Dynasty, though never visiting Mogadishu received second-hand information from those who had. He writes of the architecture, houses being built of stone, four or five stories high, water from deep wells drawn from buckets made of skin with cogged wheels. Fish are caught and dried to be fed to the camels, sheep, horses and cattle.

Duarte Barbosa

Duarte Barbosa from the 16th century wrote that Mogadishu was a large town ruled by a king, though he probably meant a sheikh. He talks about the exports of trade, in which there is ivory, wax and gold which is presumably re-exported from Kilua and Sofala trading’s, he says that the people speak Arabic, however, mostly for business.

He describes that the men are mostly dark-skinned black people while some are lighter in color. And briefly mentions their weaponry or lack thereof other than poisoned arrows. 


The Somali are known for their oral traditions, stories that were told and passed on until finding their way on the page. There aren’t many about the town of Mogadishu, however, the ones that are there connect international dots.

The Shiraishi (the Portuguese) and those who came after 

It was said that some of the first inhabitants of Mogadishu were white people whose origins were not remembered. However, the Somali people know the Shiraishi as the Portuguese. 

They were said to shave the head of their girls leaving only a fringe on top, which was a tradition succeeded by the Hawiye. The Madagaan people soon replaced the Shiraishi which were said to have suffered from a great famine. The Madagaan which are remembered as the lower rank people, were soon succeeded by the Mudaffar dynasty of Yemen and so on and so forth dynasties rose and fell. 

There is not just one story that a land has, it is filled with a plethora of people who bring their own stories that become intertwined with the land and people. This is only some of what is known about Medieval Mogadishu. Throughout history, there have been many different people who have come and called Mogadishu home, and those who have bound their roots into the very stem of the town. The succession of the Sheikhs, the flourishing trade, an abundance of food and beautiful architecture are some of the features that made Mogadishu an important part of the global culture, trade and travel. As the world forgets the truth of the once flourishing town, it pegs the question.

What do you know about Mogadishu?